McAuley returns refreshed for Swedish challenge

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Gareth McAuley is set to kick-start his international career tonight with Northern Ireland – just when he thought it was all but over.

The Leicester defender, 27, was so frustrated at being overlooked that he considered quitting at the end of the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign. But now he is set to face the group leaders Sweden and win his sixth cap, with Chris Baird suspended and Michael Duff injured.

McAuley is determined to grab any chance that comes, after originally being named on the standby list. McAuley, who has been appointed Leicester captain by new manager Gary Megson, also believes he is in the form of his life. "It has been hard, the last 18 months," he said. "I have been in and out of the squad. I found myself fifth or sixth choice. I could not see a future. Now I appear to have been given a chance I was not really expecting, and it is up to me."

The Northern Ireland manager, Nigel Worthington, has been forced to make three changes to his back four from the team who lost to Iceland last month. In addition to Baird and Duff, Jonny Evans is injured, leaving only the left-back George McCartney in position.

Aaron Hughes is set to return as captain after recovering from an ankle ligament injury, and resume his central partnership with Stephen Craigan, who was surprisingly dropped in Iceland and Latvia.

The Irish lost both and face an uphill task against Sweden – Keith Gillespie and Warren Feeney are also absent through injury and suspension.

Northern Ireland (probable): Taylor (Birmingham); McAuley (Leicester), Hughes (Fulham), Craigan (Motherwell), McCartney (West Ham), Sproule (Bristol City), Clingan (Nottingham Forest), Davis (Fulham), Brunt (West Bromwich), Healy (Fulham), Lafferty (Burnley).

Sweden (probable): Isaksson; Concha, Mellberg, Hansson, Edman, Wilhelmsson, Svensson, Linderoth, Ljungberg, Elmander, Ibrahimovic.

Referee: B Layec (Fr).

Group F

Remaining fixtures: Today: Sweden v Northern Ireland; Denmark v Latvia; Liechtenstein v Iceland. 17 Nov: Northern Northern Ireland v Denmark; Latvia v Liechtenstein; Spain v Sweden. 21 Nov: Spain v Northern Ireland; Denmark v Iceland; Sweden v Latvia.

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